Don’t you dare forget…a session with Kat Cole

[This post first appeared on the SHRM Blog on June 19, 2017]

Today saw the beginning of #SHRM17 in New Orleans, where 18,000 HR pros have descended upon the city for learning, fun, and reconnecting with old friends.

The shenanigans kicked off early in the morning with pre-conference workshops, but the sessions began in earnest after lunch, with concurrent sessions and SmartStage speakers. But the main event REALLY kicks off late in the afternoon, with the appearance of Juana Hart and our first keynote of the conference.

You have probably heard of Kat Cole – she worked at Hooters and learned the operations side of the business when the cook disappeared. Her hard work and inherent business sense led to her recommendation to be sent to Australia to launch restaurants there.  She became a Vice President at 26, and then moved over to Cinnabon to become President of the company at the age of 33. Her story is remarkable. She is remarkable.

Ms. Cole’s keynote was impressive – no slides, no teleprompter, just a woman telling her story and the lessons learned along the way. There were so many inspiring tales in the keynote. I have no doubt my fellow SHRM bloggers will cover many of them. There was one in particular, however, that stood out to me.

She had just finished sharing a major mistake she made early on at Cinnabon, and shared how that mistake led to lasting success. And then, she talked about how her mom keeps her grounded. Every day on her birthday, Ms. Cole’s mother sends her a card with the following reminder: Don’t you dare forget where you came from, but don’t ever let it solely define you.

This hit me on a personal level. Everyone carries the memories of where they come from with the through life. These experiences shape who we are and how we approach adversity. Some choose to overcome them and never look back. Others wallow in those experiences, using them as an excuse to stay stuck. Ms. Cole’s message from her mother is striking because it illustrates the power of remembering what got you through adversity, and then using it to move forward.

When we refuse to look back at who we were in the past, we fail to acknowledge the lessons we learned on that path. We don’t honor the person who made it through the wilderness. We pretend it didn’t exist. But that’s not really the case, is it? That person is always looking over our shoulder, whispering in our ear, holding us back or pushing us forward. It would be disingenuous to believe we aren’t still holding on to a part of the past, even as we look towards the future.

So why focus so much on this aspect – especially when it comes within the context of Human Resources? There are two reasons – one external, the other internal.

First, the external – we need to remember that each of the employees and leaders we work with are bringing their pasts to work. We have an opportunity to be that voice that says, “Yes, you ARE that person who dealt with a not-so-great past. But that doesn’t have to be who you are forever.” We can help these people move forward by reminding them of their strengths and working with leadership to recognize when humility and courage come together to make real change.

Second, the internal – HR needs to listen to that advice. For too long, we have wallowed in the belief that we have no influence. That no one will let us do anything. That we have fought like hell to get where we are today and it just doesn’t seem like it’s that far at all. And yet…look at how far we have come. We are no longer “personnel.” We have the ear of our CEOs. We may still struggle at times, but CHRO is a position that actually EXISTS in business – and it didn’t always. We have struggled and we will continue to struggle…but we have so much potential.

So my advice to you, #SHRM17 HR professionals – don’t forget where you came from….but DON’T YOU DARE let that solely define you.

Be more. Do more. Dare more.

The world IS wide enough

I am an unabashed Broadway nerd. I’m not the most knowledgeable, and I have some very controversial views on Cats (Spoiler Alert: I can’t stand it.), but what I lack in knowledge, I more than make up for my love of certain shows. And one of my greatest loves is Hamilton. (Going out on a limb there, I know.)

The show overflows with themes, just pick one – love, ambition, politics, the disconnect between men who cried freedom but not really for all. In relistening to the soundtrack recently, another theme really stood out to me – the idea that there is enough room for more than one success story.

Too many of us think the only way for one person to rise is for another person to fall. That the key to protecting what you have gained is to ensure no one else has that same chance. This can be especially true among groups who have historically struggled to gain power – women, minorities, LGBTQ, the poor, the undereducated, the disadvantaged. 

I watch the dialogue happening in our country today and I’m struck by this theme returning again and again. And it troubles me because it seems we are approaching success like a zero-sum game, which is bad for society at large. Fair isn’t equal…but do we really think a zero-sum game is fair?

We see this play out on a smaller scale in our workplaces. We make some strides in diversion, but fall down with inclusion. We talk about “culture fit” without acknowledging it could easily be code for “look, think, and BE like me.” We subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) place a limit on how many of the “other” are allowed to be successful, and we create a system that ensures the few “other” who do succeed participate in keeping the new status quo to protect what little gains they’ve achieved.

How did we get here? And more importantly, how do we move on from here?

Maybe it’s as simple as realizing the world IS wide enough; that success is NOT a zero-sum game; that, in fact, when we support each other and help each other succeed, we raise ALL ships. We need to celebrate the honestly gained success of others, not knock them down. We need to stop comparing ourselves to an impossible standard we see online because so much of it is a lie anyway. We need to set a path that makes sense for us, and then support others who are seeking their own path.

At the recent WorkHuman conference, Former First Lady Michelle Obama and Steve Pemberton spoke about the Maasai tribe’s custom of asking not “how are you?” but “how are the children?” In their culture, if the children are well, then everyone is well. This resonated with me (and not because I like children – I’m not exactly maternal). It resonated because it’s another way of saying, “The world is wide enough.” Give every child a chance to succeed, and they will continue to expand the borders of our world as we know it.

There is so much room for success in this world. There is so much potential to be realized.

How will you help others expand their world?

Now I’m the villain in your history
I was too young and blind to see…
I should’ve known
I should’ve known
The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me

– Aaron Burr, Hamilton: The Musical

The power of connection

After Day Two of the WorkHuman conference, I’m struck by how many people have walked up to me and said, “I wanted to meet you! We tweet at each other all the time!”

And the other person is right! We totally tweet at each other all the time. And we laugh together. And we end up having a lot in common, or many not that many things in common, but at least we get each other’s movie references…which totally counts.

I’ve gotten to meet so many fantastic people I’ve only known online – like Tamara Rasberry (my sister-cousin) – or reconnect with people I see only sporadically at conferences – like the Canadian contingent of Bonni Titgemeyer, Pam Ross, Kristen Harcourt, and Rob Caswell. And of course, I get to see the incomparable Victorio Milian (but I didn’t bring the good camera!). This is just a short list of the amazing people I connected with at this conference.

All around me, I saw people meet, engage in meaningful conversation, realize they “know” each other from social media, and share a good laugh. To me, this reaffirms that connection – no matter how it’s made – is a powerful thing.

I firmly believe I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have now without my online community of friends. I have built friendships over Twitter and Facebook without having to meet the person face to face. And I don’t feel like these connections are any less powerful or meaningful than ones that would have been made at a networking event in my hometown. I even had a chance to meet Adam Grant face to face because of online interactions we’ve shared. (I try not to fangirl too much, but this was DEFINITELY a highlight of the conference.)

So my point is this – don’t discount a connection you make, no matter how virtual it may be. Cultivate your relationships if they are meaningful to you…even if it’s long distance or online or both. You ARE building relationships, even if you don’t have a chance to see that other person for another 12 months. The power of those connections don’t fade. In fact, they may grow stronger because you appreciate just how special they can be.

If I had a chance to connect with you in real life – THANK YOU! If I didn’t have a chance to meet you, but we connected online – THANK YOU! Let’s make these connections count.

Because THAT’S what it means to “work human.”